Pandemic’s impact to Portland’s homeless population still unknown

Is Portland Over?

A researcher says rent forgiveness could prevent thousands more Oregonians from experiencing homelessness

Tents in Portland, Feb. 8, 2021. (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the most recent counts of people experiencing homelessness in Multnomah County and Oregon showed signs of improvement. 

In Portland and Multnomah County, the biennial point-in-time count of the number of people experiencing homelessness in 2019 was 4,015. That’s a decrease from the 4,177 people counted in 2017.

Oregon showed a similar trend between 2019 and 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Annual Homeless Assessment Reports. In 2019, there were 15,876 people experiencing homelessness, but in 2020 the count showed there were 14,655. 

These point-in-time counts are conducted in January, which means 2020’s numbers were collected before the pandemic impacted the state. Multnomah County conducts its counts every other year. 

After more than a year of businesses opening and closing, thousands of Oregonians losing their jobs, and a reduced number of homeless camp sweeps throughout the city, some people have told KOIN 6 News they feel the homeless population has grown. 

Marisa Zapata, head of the Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative at Portland State University, said with the eviction moratorium still in place in the county, it’s unlikely the homeless population has grown significantly in the last year. She believes people’s perception that the homeless population in the city has increased could be due to the fact that camps haven’t been moved as much and that people are focusing on behavior that’s unfamiliar to them. 

“If you see somebody using the bathroom outside, you’re focused on that and you tend to ascribe that behavior to everyone who you see living outside,” she said. 

In January 2021, Multnomah County and several other regions across the state opted to put off the point-in-time count of unsheltered people until 2022. They still counted the number of people sleeping in emergency shelters but felt it was unsafe to count the unsheltered population during the pandemic. 

So, Portland and Multnomah County will need to wait another year to find out how the pandemic has impacted those living unsheltered. 

Although the overall number of people experiencing homelessness dropped in Multnomah County between 2019 and 2017, the number of unsheltered people grew from 1,668 to 2,037.

Zapata said unless there is a “massive shock to the system” she doesn’t expect the numbers to change drastically over the next year. She said there already aren’t enough resources in Multnomah County to assist those experiencing homelessness, but a change of about 1,000 people wouldn’t impact the system too greatly. 

However, if the number of people experiencing homelessness in the county suddenly jumped to 10,000, that’s a different story. 

Zapata fears that could be a possibility if people can’t pay back the rent they owe. PSU researchers are currently estimating how many people will be unable to pay back rent and what the cost to the system would be if they all became homeless. Zapata said their research shows the cost would be upwards of $3 billion. 

She said what happens to people teetering on the edge of homelessness will depend greatly on the decisions elected officials will make in the coming year. 

“If you look at people who are already probably most impacted by the issues related to the pandemic, those are people who are going to have to spend a long time working to even pay one month back rent. We’re getting into 12 months back-rent,” Zapata said. “If we aren’t taking very, very quick and firm action, we will see a dramatic increase in homelessness.”

Portland city leaders have already been thinking of ways to better care for the unsheltered population. In March, Portland City Council discussed a proposal that would allow temporary shelters in open spaces such as parks. 

Mayor Ted Wheeler has also called for additional shelter beds during the pandemic. 

However, Zapata said increasing the number of shelter beds does not mean people will take advantage of them. 

From where she stands and what she sees, Zapata said if the state does not take action to keep people in their homes or to forgive rent, Oregon could see an enormous increase in homelessness in the coming months. 

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